My niece, Livia, was the first kid in a new generation in my family, just like my sister (and her mother) was before her. Being the first kid means spending your earlier years surrounded entirely by adults. I have only anecdotal evidence to support this, but spending all of your time around adults seems to be a double edged sword – making you more mature but also adopting the many worries of adults that most kids never even consider. True to form, Livia is quite mature for a first grader, but I sometimes wish that she could put her worries aside to enjoy being a kid – carefree and with an occasional skinned knee. So when she asked me to teach her to ice skate, I was nervous that her first fall might cut our lesson short, or even worse, that watching other kids fall might keep her from ever getting out on the ice in the first place. She walked up to the rink with a look on her face that showed she was approaching the experience with her characteristic caution, so as I tied her skates, I told her that I had the secret to learning how to ice skate. When I built it up to the point that she begged me to tell her what it was, I leaned in close to whisper “Falling is fun!” When she looked at me skeptically, I elaborated about how slippery the ice was and how silly it felt to keep sliding even after you fell.
For the first fifteen minutes, she melodramatically flung herself to the ground at least two dozen times with the acting prowess of a professional soccer player trying to draw a foul. Although my back was less than enthused after repeatedly picking her up off the ice, the shift in her mindset was profound. No longer was falling something to be feared. It didn’t take long for her to gain her balance, first by holding my hands and soon without any assistance at all. With each lap, she improved, gaining both confidence and stability. I heard her say “one more lap” so many times that it wasn’t long before the 90-minute open skate was over.
The adrenaline surge that is triggered by fear is harnessed by many an athlete to help them to run faster and jump higher. The very existence of the human race owes itself to the power of this response that helped us to outrun predators over thousands of years of evolution. When you’re trying something new, however, fear can be toxic. The reason the fight or flight response is able to make us run faster and jump higher is because it has extremely clear priorities. Blood gets sent to your legs and lungs, while anything that is not essential to your immediate survival shuts down. No need for your stomach to digest breakfast if you can’t escape becoming the lion’s lunch!
Another important function that shuts down when you’re afraid is the growth and repair of your body. At a cellular level, your body is continually in a process of renewal, as millions of cells are continually created to replace older ones. In fact, it turns out that some occasional stress is good – and even necessary – for this growth (think of the “stress” of a workout helping your muscles to grow larger or of pushing outside your comfort zone to achieve a goal). However, our stress response has become TOO efficient for modern life. In the absence of a lion, we now feel stress and fear when we have to give a speech or try to avoid falling when learning how to skate. In fact, our stress response has become so sensitive that for many of us, the stress and fear never goes away…we are chronically afraid. Your digestive system is a low priority for your immediate survival, so it shuts down…one reason why digestive problems like heartburn can be caused by stress. Fear will also stunt your growth, not only physically and mentally, but even at the cellular level. It would be a shame if an extra ounce of energy went to your growth instead of your lungs that could have been the difference between feeding a lion family of four and living to fight another day. It’s no wonder we find ourselves living in a time obsessed with instant gratification. Our bodies are constantly telling us to focus on our immediate survival…we may not make it through the day!
I’m certainly not the first to tell you to embrace failure, but typically the only time anyone ever says this is to make us feel better after we have already failed. Embrace is defined as “an act of accepting or supporting willingly and enthusiastically. While I know that some of us accept failure willingly, few of us accept it enthusiastically. Strap on those skates and go out on the ice with the intention of falling. That’s right: Seek to fail. Enthusiastically fail. Embracing failure is not enough. After all, falling is fun!
Lest you think that this is only a message for children, let me tell you this:
The reason I knew to use this trick on my niece is because I had used it on myself just weeks before. You see, I’m obsessed with the Olympics, so when I saw an ad in the paper to learn to speed skate, it was an offer that I couldn’t pass up. As I was stepping off the ice after my first session, I smiled smugly and thought: “Look at that! I made it through my first lesson and didn’t even fall!” I had not set a goal of not falling, but within seconds I realized that subconsciously, my goal all along had been to avoid falling and looking silly. I lamented how much I had subconsciously held back…How much faster could I have gone? How much tighter could I have taken the turns? More than anything I told myself “What an opportunity I have missed to seekfailure and learn that it’s not so bad after all.
You can probably guess that at my second lesson, after we warmed up I took that first turn so hard that I quickly got acquainted with the reason they line the rink with padding. It may have been the first, but it certainly wasn’t my last fall over the past month of learning to speed skate. In my first competition last weekend, I won the qualifying heats in the novice category and got bumped up to the intermediate category for the finals against people who had been speed skating it for years! I’m still just a beginner, but I’m getting faster and I know that much of my success is due to my commitment to seek failure.
After my niece threw herself to the ground, I would skate over to her to help her up. I have the image deeply imprinted in my mind of reaching down for her, her hair sprawled over the ice as she giggled with pure joy because she had fallen…and falling is fun. It’s a picture I won’t soon forget and a lesson I hope to always carry with me. If the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, then what happens when we’re no longer afraid of fear?